In Defense of Social Media (At Least Some Of It)

Scott Berkun just posted a great rant titled, Calling Bullshit on Social Media. I suggest everyone read it. Berkun raises good points – and I agree the hype around social media warrants taking a critical look. Despite being in general agreement, there are a few areas I can’t abide, starting with this statement:

social media is a stupid term. Is there any anti-social media out there? Of course not. All media, by definition, is social in some way.

Railing against the popular lexicon is always a losing bet. Language is formed by collective agreement and it sticks because it resonates and serves a purpose. The words we use to assign to concepts can reveal quite a lot. Rather than dismissing it, we should try and learn from it. I have written before that I believe the term “social” is a new metaphor for understanding how we will transact business and conduct government. As Lakoff and Johnson so aptly pointed out in Metaphors We Live By, metaphors play a crucial role in shaping our very thought and action. We should take the “social” in social media seriously.

Next Berkun writes:

We have always had social networks. Call them families, tribes, clubs, cliques or even towns, cities and nations. You could call throwing a party or telling stories by a fire “social media tools”. If anything has happened recently it’s not the birth of social networks, it’s the popularity of digital tools for social networks, which is something different. These tools may improve how we relate to each other, but at best it will improve upon something we as a species have always done. Never forget social networks are old. The best tools will come from people who recognize, and learn from, the rich 10,000+ year history of social networks.

Well yes and no. The problem is this. Communication is the foundation of economies, government and business. When you scale up communications you change the world. It is that simple. When you radically accelerate or democratize a means of communication (I would include physical transportation in this category too) it is not a change in class (as Berkun argues) it is a change in kind.

By analogy, the railroad did not invent the wheel nor did it invent locomotion or steam power. In fact the train did not create anything particularly new. What it did was massively accelerate the ability to move people and goods across land. That acceleration changed everything… In the U.S. it standardized time, it nationalized commerce. Around the world it broke the lock of power on maritime cities that used to control commerce… and on and on.

Similarly the Internet, and social technologies in particular, do not create much that is new in the way of content (or even human interaction as Berkun notes) but the medium massively accelerates our ability to create, share, connect and collaborate. That acceleration of our innate capacity and desire to be social is exactly what makes social technologies transformative. Where I agree with Berkun’s statement above is that the same rules of social etiquette will apply in this media. That is exactly what stuns so many corporations believing they can migrate essentially antisocial behaviors (hack PR blogs, social media gimmick campaigns etc.) into “social” media.

Lastly Berkun writes,

Be suspicious of technologies claimed to change the world. The problem with the world is rarely the lack of technologies, the problem is us. Look, we have trouble following brain dead simple concepts like The Golden Rule.

Agreed. People can really suck. But “change” is a value neutral term. It doesn’t imply good or bad and while it is true that many negative human traits will accompany these technologies, it is hard to overstate the magnitude of the changes that are taking place as a direct result of social media – new ways to communicate, stars (including academics finding an audience) born from YouTube, bloggers redefining journalism and science, open source software dethroning traditional players, the demise of established industries like publishing, music and entertainment, with other industries like telecommunications and manufacturing, retailing queuing up for their turn. We see social technologies organizing spontaneous rallies in California, Moldavia and most recently Iran. That is change. I would also argue that the democratic promise of these tools – the promise that people can connect with each other without an intermediary (I know all of the ways that this may not turn out to be the case – but still…) holds the possibility of distributing power more evenly. If there is one root problem in much of this world – it is the concentration of power wielded by a small minority. We should celebrate any technology that lowers barriers to communication.

caveat: Scott Berkun is an O’Reilly Author and in my defense, I owned his book Myths of Innovation long before I joined O’Reilly.

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  • bowerbird

    many-to-many communication is the revolution here.
    it wasn’t possible before. and it changes everything.

    that having been said, our implementation is weird.

    i suppose you’d understand me immediately if i said
    someone is “my facebook friend, not my real friend.”

    and that is the crux of the problem so far.

    but we’ll get it ironed out, eventually…


  • Thanks for a thoughtful response. If more people wrote this thoughtfully about SM I probably wouldn’t have written my post :)

    Two points:

    1) I didn’t say we should stop saying social media. Or stop using it even. That ship has sailed and I know I’m a micro-fish in a mega-pond. All I said was that there are assumptions riding along with that phrase that must be called out. Putting social media in any context of social and media history is a step in the right direction.

    I think Lakoff and Johnson would argue it makes sense to question and examine the words we use as there are often unintended or misleading assumptions that are piggybacking on our seemingly innocent language (That’s in part what I took their book to be about). Both Georges, Orwell and Carlin, would agree we must unpack language, not just accept it because it’s popular. Good language will hold up well – euphemistic or inflated language won’t.

    But the main point of philosophy we disagree on is assumptions about change.

    From studying the history of tech change it’s clear to me that change always has positive and negative effects and its hard to sort out what they are in real time.

    Anytime someone promotes something as 100% positive, it means either:

    a) They’re unaware of history
    b) They haven’t thought honestly about possible consequences
    c) They’re speaking in self-interest

    Acceleration of railroads was certainly good for the U.S. economy, but it was not so good if, say, I don’t know, you were the American Indians in 1870, as the transcontinental railroad mostly accelerated your genocide. Speed helps some things and worsens others. Speed was bad for the WMD debate regarding war in IRAQ, and the use of CDOs in the sub-prime crisis.

    I can’t say with certainly that what has happened in the music or newspaper industry is entirely good. Can you? Different yes. Change in power structure? Certainly. But there is no guarantee that the new power structures that rise won’t suffer the same problems, or different and worse problems, than the old.

    I am definitely a fan of change, and I am, despite all appearances, a passionate optimist, but I’m an optimist with my eyes open. I know that change never guarantees progress – it only creates the possibility for progress.

    Social media definitely has potential to do good things. But it has other potentials too, including the potential to have not much effect on many aspects of life, to annoy people who get more value out of other media, and the uncertainty of all this, and the likelihood social media will be a mixed bag like all other media, is the heart of my point.

  • Ted

    Wow. So I guess McLuhan was wrong. The medium is not the message. Thus, for example, it matters not that computers amplify intelligence, because intelligence already existed as a phenomenon.

  • Markus

    It’s not the idea of “Social Media” that bothers me. Its the sudden swell of “Social Media Gurus/Experts/Veterans” that are trying to sell the idea as the next advertising venue.

    I’ve met enough of these people, usually at “meetups” which are actually just a lot of PR/marketing/advertising trying to network me for my connections.

    Most of them do not know what they are doing. They do not know what they are selling. But they will convince a lot of unknowing saps to drink their Kool-Aid and give the rest of us who work in the Internet Business a bad name.

    Yay Capitalism and the horrid leeches that are attached to it.

    Social Media Gurus = Used Car Salesman.

  • Ted – I don’t think McCluhan was wrong at all. I agree with Bower Bird above that a many-to-many medium is very much at the heart of what is profound and transformational here.

    I think we agree on the power of language. The difference may be that I think the word “social” is potentially a powerful (and positive) metaphor for a new way to transact – one that is more founded on a social contract – built on authenticity and trust.
    On assumptions – I stated pretty clearly that the word “change” is value neutral. I am not talking about good/bad but about magnitude. I am right with you that technology pulls both good and bad with it. I also agree that the conversation is all about the good right now. I posted a whole series here
    As to questioning the evangelists of social media — I am with you 100% and wrote a piece that puts some historical perspective on it that you would appreciate.


  • re: “social” media

    Once upon a time when I bought lots of books (have no time to read any now, of course, awash in media)one title I picked off the shelf in a good bookstore (which had to move to a worse location and is no longer good) was:

    THE ATTACK OF THE BLOB: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of The Social

    And another title was …

    WHEN STRANGERS COOPERATE: Using social conventions to govern ourselves

    NOW: Being thoroughly postmodern rhetoricians, we can be sure that the hundreds of pages of content of those books has no significance OTHER THAN some (usually self-interested) comment we can squeeze into a tweet-sized summarization (usually bullshit, see previous parenthetical) TO WIT:

    RT @artistofideas “‘Social’ is not what you think it is,” says your Facebook “friend” BOKE.

    Well, what does it mean? Pay me, and I will tell you. :)

  • I think I cannot agree with the premise that all media is social. It comes dow to what is social communication. Yes all media does allow for the exchange of ideas but to be social requires much more of than simply the exchange of words or pictures. A real social interaction is about an exchange of verbal and non verbal communication. In real face to face social encounters we respond to each other’s expressions, we asses the body language, we mirror both verbally and physically the other person, we acknowledge the pace and flow of communication, we respnd to sub conscious stymulia about turn taking, we bring to bare our knowledge of the individuals concerned, the context, the location of the exchange, the history of past echanges etc. ( Alex Pentland has written a great book on the significance and power of what he calls “Honest Signals” in social interaction)

    Within a digital social exchange we have to communicate through a very narrow communication “pipe” many of the dimensions of true social exchanges are excluded or greatly diminished.

    So while what we call social media is powerful in many ways, almost zero transactional cost, the democratization of content creation, speed of creation and delivery, reach etc it still has a long way to go before all the depth and potential of true social communication can be digitized.

  • Ade

    I actually preferred Scott’s response to Joshua-Michele’s post than his original blog-post which triggered this debate/discussion. I think the reason for this preference is that I found his (Scott’s) comments to JM’s post more nuanced. This isn’t a crticism, I recognise that the comment was crafted to respond to specific points raised. I particularly liked the examples of the music and newspaper industry he cited and agree that it’s simply too soon to predict how changes to them will pan out. Surely no real “expert” would pretend otherwise.

  • I would like to respond to this comment:

    “I think Lakoff and Johnson would argue it makes sense to question and examine the words we use as there are often unintended or misleading assumptions that are piggybacking on our seemingly innocent language (That’s in part what I took their book to be about). Both Georges, Orwell and Carlin, would agree we must unpack language, not just accept it because it’s popular. Good language will hold up well – euphemistic or inflated language won’t.”

    I am inclined to believe who ever it was who cautioned that small minds focus on words and expansive minds focus on meaning. Social media tends to push toward the former, I fear. We bounce off the surface of what is being said in the way that we react to words.

    Knit picking over the term “social media” verses “interactive media” is a case in point.

    In a discussion with you, I will come to understand your meaning through iterative exploration of the words you use. This conversational approach is a natural approach to language.

    In reading statements of abstractions of experiences which we have not shared, any imperial control of word choice will contribute only marginally to deeply shared understandings. If you choose to approach communication as a marketer, you can of course promote a BUZZ of words and avoided constructing a language of understanding. Words are necessary inconveniences as we struggle to share meanings, and the myth of a perfect word is true only for marketing buzz. Fighting for the supremacy of words distracts us from the struggle to share depth of meaning. If you tell me what the words mean to you, this is enough. If I tell you what the words mean to me, we can share understandings. If we fight over who is right, we gain nothing. The words are only the reflections on the surface.

    We may be arguing as individuals whose minds have been conditioned by the use of social media to think primarily in terms of the certainty of words. This, I think, would be a sad commentary on the state of humanity. It could become a tyranny of speeches over conversations.

  • Tom,
    Thanks for such a well-thought out comment. I am mostly in agreement and I am far from saying we should accept the social prefix being applied to everything. Rather, I think it is significant and worth looking into how social might function as a metaphor. In other words, I am interested in the underlying significance of the term. I was arguing that shallow dismissals of the term are (1) futile and (2) preclude any further investigation from which we might be able to learn.

  • To be sure, social media or social networking may represent different ways of accomplishing the same things. To me, however, it can really be transformative in the workplace. I’ve been researching this quite a bit for my second book.

    Sharing and collaborating on documents maximizes employee productivity. Quick status updates can obviate the need for email autoresponders and other antiquated methods of communication. Companies such as Yammer and Noodle have tools that can really make a difference on the bottom line.

    Perhaps these tools will fizzle and we’ll laugh at them in five year, but I doubt it. Many organizations are adopting exciting new technologies that are fundamentally changing the ways in which people work and communicate.